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Tree farms: Summer's drought hurts future harvests

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If you want a real Christmas tree that will reach your ceiling, this is your year. Don’t wait.

Local tree farmers said this summer’s drought has cost them thousands of dollars in lost trees and will cause their trees to be shorter in the next few years.

Tree farmers usually plant seedlings in the spring; but with the drought, some local farmers lost trees they planted this year.

At local tree farms, the lack of water caused stress on the trees, which made them stop growing, drop excess needles sooner than usual and become more susceptible to insects and diseases, said Steve DeHart, who owns a tree farm south of Franklin.

Joe Peiffer, who also owns a tree farm south of Franklin, lost all of the seedlings he planted this year, worth about $1,400.

He started growing trees 10 years ago, and this summer put mulch around the trees to keep water in the ground and tried to water them by hand, but his efforts were unsuccessful.

“The main thing is I’m just glad it didn’t happen in the first few years. We never would have gotten a start. That’s really the main thing I’m thankful for,” Peiffer said.

Because the trees stopped growing, residents who go to the farms this year will cut down 7- and 8-foot trees, but the trees you choose from in a few years will be around 5 or 6 feet, DeHart said.

And with fewer tall trees, DeHart said the farmers might have to raise their prices.

Trees bought from the farms this year will be normal height and require a normal amount of water, but trees planted this year will need more time to reach full height, DeHart said. A Christmas tree usually is ready about six years after planting.

DeHart currently sells all trees at one price and tries to sell trees from the same area on his farm for two years before moving on to a new plot.

Because of the drought, some trees in the area he would sell from in a few years will be shorter than normal, and that could cause him to raise his price for the 7- and 8-foot trees in that area, DeHart said.

“If we don’t have enough larger trees in that plot, the larger trees will be at a premium,” DeHart said.

DeHart and his wife have been selling trees from their farm since 2009. They plant 2,000 trees in the spring each year but, because of the drought this year, lost about 1,200 trees, worth more than $1,000, he said.

While other farmers did not replace their lost trees, DeHart said he planted new trees in the fall because the couple want to plant more trees than they sell. The replacement trees will be shorter than some planted in the spring because they lost six months of growth, he added.

Don Deckwith, who owns a tree farm near Trafalgar, said he planted 300 seedlings this year and lost about 20 percent of them.

He said he thinks he lost fewer trees than other farmers because he had planted the trees in pots instead of the ground. Using the pots allowed him to plant the trees in soil they grow better in and allowed him to water them more easily.

Because he started growing trees in 2009, Deckwith said, he does not have mature trees ready to sell. He did not replace the trees he lost but said he doesn’t expect to have a shortage of trees when he starts selling them in two years.

DeHart said the farmers won’t see the effects of the lost trees until a few years from now. That’s when the trees they planted to replace those ruined by drought or those to be planted next year are harvested. Those trees are expected to be smaller.

Residents who want to buy trees this year won’t notice any difference from the drought, DeHart said.

“Once people get to the farm, they’ll realize we’ve had substantial enough rains that the grass is green and the trees are in good shape,” he said. “They’re well-shaped and ready to go.”

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